I’ve been thinking about the nature of social class, at least as it seems to be expressed in our community. Class is one of those things that we Americans are slightly embarrassed about and secretly fascinated with. The news cannot go half a day without some piece featuring the One Percent, and all the reality TV shows are about class, or the lack of it. Dividing classes into rich, middle and poor is an American pastime of long standing. Contemporary sociology texts and studies are far more sophisticated than that, so I’m told. While I can’t pretend to have any such sophistication, it hasn’t stopped me from thinking about class in other ways.
It started with reflections on the life of a young friend I’ve known for over a decade who is now in his early twenties. He was an indifferent student in school, but a nice kid with lots of friends. He tried his hand at community college, mostly in training for several trades, but the technological skills required were a bit much for him.
In years gone by he could have earned a decent wage as an unskilled or low skilled worker in one of the canneries, or maybe in the public works department. The canneries are gone, and the public works department no longer has permanent jobs for unskilled or low skilled labor.
Today he earns his living as a clerk in a local convenience store that caters to a recognizable “class” of folks who would feel uncomfortable and out of place in other stores. Is the service sector the only place in which he can succeed? Has he already reached the apex of his career? We’ve got big new Marriott going in downtown. They will be hiring quite a few people at slightly higher wages. Could he make it there?
Here’s my guess, and it’s only a guess. He would feel out of place at the Marriott. The people he knows and is comfortable being around will not be Marriott customers. The workers they will hire are not likely to be representative of his friends. So, even though he might have a chance at some kind of career ladder there, he will not take that chance. It’s a matter of class, a sense of where one belongs among those who share similar social and cultural values, where one does not have to feel socially vulnerable.
Another friend said it in plain words when he observed that he was uncomfortable with the idea of brining new people into his church because they would probably not be from the class of people with whom he would otherwise socialize or consider his equals in the community. It sounds snobby, but I see the same dynamic working at every level, and we do think of them as being levels. A few days ago I was at an incident involving a family who lives at the very bottom. Their ramshackle house was filled with police and medics. There was nothing criminal going on, but it was painfully clear that the members of this family, and their friends, were more than uncomfortable around the symbols of proper, well regulated life in a community they live in but are not a part of. The atmosphere was deeply suspicious, almost hostile. The barriers between their class and mine are high and wide, and they have helped build them. They would no more invite my friend into their house than he would invite them into his church. We know our place better than we like to admit.
It gets more complicated when one factors in things such as race and ethnicity. We end up with classes within classes. Native vs. newcomers. Hispanics vs. Anglos. There are subsets within subsets. The local Hispanic (almost all Mexican) population ranges from newly arrived immigrants to families with roots going back several generations. Right behind them are the Russians, almost all of whom are Russian Baptists. Partly because of their minority and persecuted status in Russia, many, but not all, are reluctant to do anything outside of their tightly knit group. They may live in our community, but are not a part of it, and yet they are.
We are a very class conscious people no matter how much we deny it. The rules of class are very complicated, but we all seem to know them.
One of my more bigoted right wing acquaintances firmly believes that anyone can pull him or her self out of the terrible conditions of the lower classes. All they need is a little gumption and effort, and he can unleash a torrent of examples. I probably don’t need to say that he believes every right thinking person should aspire to be a financially secure, well educated American of Northern European heritage regardless of their race or background. It does not occur to him that his torrent of examples includes less than a dozen who have achieved celebrity status not because they are anyone, but because they are extraordinarily gifted individuals who also experienced unusually good luck. Knowing him, I do not believe that he could have done the same. As locked into as he is to the self image of class to which he thinks he belongs, I suspect he would be just as deeply locked into the self image of whatever other class he might have been in.
So, to close this off this rambling, there is yet another way of thinking about class that amuses me in my idle hours. I call them posers. They are the people who strive to pose as if they belonged to a class that they believe is important to belong to. We dramatize them as social climbers, but I think it’s just a hobby for many, an adult game of make believe or pretend that is not very different from the games we played as kids. As long as it doesn’t become pathological, or hurtful to others, it’s probably harmless.